In 1915, the world was introduced to several iconic figures: Kraft cheese, which changed the way people dressed their hamburgers and sandwiches; Raggedy Ann, who became a household name among children; and Hal Jackson, the man who grew up to be the founding father of Black radio.
Several weeks before his recent passing at the age of 97, this reporter began talking to Jackson about his life and trailblazing career for the Amsterdam News. At the time, Jackson’s health was already failing, and the discussion turned out to be the last major interview for this icon of the Harlem community and the radio broadcasting world.
There is no birth certificate to confirm the exact date, but according to Jackson in his 2003 autobiography,”The House That Jack Built,” he was born in Charleston, S.C., on Nov. 3, 1915. He grew up in an affluent community, crediting his family as the first of color to purchase an automobile, which at that time cost an average of $500.
After his parents died when he was only 8, he bounced around to different family members’ homes along the East Coast until he finally ventured out on his own at 13.
Jackson started his career doing college radio at Howard University, announcing at their football and basketball games. As a proud graduate of a historically Black college, he spoke about the movement to get young Blacks to those schools when he was a youth, and the continuing relevance of those schools today.
“[HBCUs] are getting better all the time,” Jackson said. “I came along when it was a hard thing for a Black professor to teach–they were very creative, but they never got the opportunity to show it.
“Then there was a whole revolution and all the Black people came together and had meetings and meetings,” he said. “It was done to encourage Black children to go to Black colleges. It worked.”
From his early Howard experience, Jackson went on to pursue his dream as a radio disc jockey, but he knew the road ahead would be a challenging one. He found jobs in the local D.C. metro area, working for years at various stations, including WINX, WOOK, WANN and WSID.
In the 1950s, New York got wind of Jackson’s success and popularity and lured him to work in the Big Apple at stations like WABC and WMCA, where he was the first Black on the air. Then, in the ’70s, he teamed up with attorney and Assemblyman Percy Sutton and acquired the WLIB and WBLS stations, making them the first Black-owned radio station.
Washington, D.C., became Jackson’s second home after leaving South Carolina, and he always enjoyed going back to visit his beloved alma mater. “When I got locked in so tight in New York with a tight schedule, I would still make it a point to come down [to Howard]. The people there were so wonderful to me, and whenever they knew I was coming to town, it was a big hoopla. [There was] nothing like it,” he said.
And as he became more of a force in the world of radio, Jackson never forgot the Black community that had nourished him and given him so much opportunity. For years he held Talented Teens International,a talent contest for girls ages 13 to 17. That organization, in conjunction with his weekly radio show, “Hal Jackson’s Sunday Classics with Debi B and Clay Berry,” co-hosted with his fourth wife, Debi B. (who he met when she was a volunteer with Talented Teens), is what kept him going well through his silver years.
During the interview, when asked about when or if he would ever retire, his wife intervened:”He doesn’t like that question,” she said.
Jackson followed her. “There ain’t no retirement,” he stated with a bit of an attitude. He did lighten up, however, as he further explained, “I always find that every time I start thinking about [retirement], some other need comes up. I think about my Talented Teens and all these girls from all over the world. If I try to shun the responsibility of giving back, I feel miserable.”
When asked about her husband of 24 years, Debi B. beamed like a lighthouse and looked at him with great admiration. “He really knew how to impress a person,” she explained nostalgically of their early encounters and their time together over the years.
Her life with Jackson was wonderful despite their considerable age difference. According to Debi, Jackson always remained engaged in the world, keeping up with current events by watching MSNBC and reading newspapers. But Sundays were his special days.
After serving him his favorite breakfast meal–sardines, grits and prune juice–Debi would remind him what day it was. “It’s Sunday? I gotta go to work!” she would mimic the loyal disc jockey. “He would get so excited, because he loves what he does and he looked forward to it every week. I don’t know what he would if he were to stop. It wouldn’t be good.”
Quietly reading the paper while awaiting his next cue from his other co-host, Clay Berry, his wife talked about the memories they had shared in their joint career ventures. She also assisted him during the interview, writing down the questions, as he was profoundly deaf in both ears.
It can be difficult to interview a person who has been in the industry for the duration of the average person’s lifetime because there is so much that can be discussed, especially the hundreds of celebrities Jackson has interviewed and worked with over the decades.From Mary McLeod Bethune to Bob Marley to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Lena Horne, and Michael Jackson; he met them all and helped chronicle their lives for the Black community.
“I go way back with Michael because the Jacksons were my friends,” he said of the legendary pop star. “He used to hang in my studio, loved being around the radio. I used to ask him, ‘What you getting out of this?’ He’d say, ‘I’m getting a whole lot of Hal,’ and then he went on to do the movies and everything else…but he was a determined little devil.”
It was Hal Jackson, along with his friend, the late Dick Clark, who helped start Michael Jackson’s career, putting the Jackson 5 on “American Bandstand.” Clark depended on Hal Jackson to be the liaison for getting Black performers on his show.
“I worked with Dick a whole lot because I was the inside person to all the Black performers, and he always wanted to get them on his show,” Jackson said. “In return, I’d make him do something for the Black performers because he had that kind of power. But he didn’t mind it. It was tit for tat. He helped whenever he could push a Black performer because we did a lot to keep him on top.”
Jackson met so many people that, when asked, he couldn’t decide on a favorite person that he had interviewed or worked with. “See, that’s a hard one because there are so many I have loved,” he said.
“You just look at them and you talk to them, and then a lot of times they just open up their hearts to you.”
Jackson’s charm and desire to help others was contagious, and giving back was his mission in life. “I always made it a point,” he said. “My mother and father did when I was very young, and I always made it a routine to reach back and give somebody else a chance.
“I’ve got one slogan, and I’ve lived by it all my life: It’s nice to be important, but it’s important to be nice. It gets people who are very depressed to come out of it and it makes a wonderful life.”
And a wonderful life he surely had.